“You can run from your country, but never from its shadow”

When Jeremías Gamboa (Lima, 1975) published his first novel, “Contarlo todo” (2013), he received praise from the Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and a large number of critics. This tumultuous work of a writer in search of his voice, narrating a lifetime, is now followed by “Animales Luminos” (Random House), set in one night, the one experienced by a Peruvian student on the campus of the University of Colorado, in Boulder.

What was the initial impetus for this book?

One of those evenings, some of my friends in Boulder, where I was studying, got into an argument about whether or not this Colorado campus where we were was a city. This dialogue was turning into a novel, basically a conversation about the state of the world, identity and its deceptions.

The spaces where things happen are very important, they are described with the precision of an urban planner or an interior designer.

The place exists, it is a campus with an impressive library, great facilities and many professors, it represents the thriving North American academy. Boulder is a town where Patti Smith or Lou Reed can play, and at the same time it has elk forests and wild nature where the world of reason has settled. My character’s route goes through purgatory, heaven and hell, different layers. There are cellars and some elevated viewpoints to contemplate the lights of the plain.

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This is a novel that seems to have a cinematographer.

My training is audiovisual, that’s what I studied. I have a story unfolding in a Hopper painting, and I saw Boulder like that, with Hopper’s light. Colorado is chiaroscuro.

His book falls into the tradition of campus novels.

We have Don DeLillo’s Ruido de fondo, John Williams’ Stoner, Javier Cercas’ El tenant, some of Bolaño’s 2666 is also academic… Mine would rather be Kerouac on campus, something carroty, not so wild, but with bars, canteens, youth. My characters don’t run away from lessons, they learn. Nearby, in Boulder itself, is Naropa University, home to the Jack Kerouac School of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Lucia Berlin spent her last years in Boulder as a teacher, where John Fante also lived. This is the B-side of the academic novel. On the road de Kerouac also started on campus, they went on vacation between two semesters because the beats also went to class.

This is a novel about friendship. How does he feel?

It is a hero in a new environment, an animal that we have introduced into a new habitat. These are the first days of emigration where you have to learn everything, how to order a beer, how to greet people, you are very careful not to make mistakes. My first days in the US were under tremendous mental stress. I’m talking about that huge anxiety caused by being watched, the fear of not fitting in. There, friendship appears as a contrast, it is the possibility of integration. It is basically the story of a friendship between a boy from the south and a boy from the north. Even the Americans are expats, none of them were from Boulder, and traveling to another state implies a huge displacement, a continental one. The dark part is the extreme loneliness, the solipsism of the emigrant, and the bright part is friendship and love.

Love forces you to feel… and feeling is extremely dangerous”

The call codes at night are very different from those during the day.

In many male soap operas of the boom, the men talked to each other in a bar. On campus, on a no-holds-barred night, people reveal their affairs, as does the seduction game where you’re forced to release declassified documents about yourself. Very favorable at first, but then not so much so as not to look like a peacock. There is that game of truths: what we tell each other and what we don’t. By migrating, you keep the half of you that arrives in the new place, not the half that stays behind. My parents migrated from Ayacucho to Lima, they both spoke Quechua and some of that is there.

Tell us about this trip of your parents.

Because my father was whiter, they told my mother, who worked as a housekeeper in San Ysidro, “Maybe your son can work in a bank.” Advertisements for housekeepers required “good looks,” which means the whiter the better. My mother burned all her features in the Andes to be from Lima. In the US I do something similar and have seen it in others. At night, moreover, you project something, you are not what you were, you show an attitude of seduction, you abandon what is true.

Jeremiah Gamboa in Barcelona

Jeremiah Gamboa in Barcelona

Prickly peanut

In fact, we will find that some of the things told in the dialogues are false.

If we are not in pure pathology, falling in love leads to the truth, to the knowledge of the dark areas. Love is an activator of memory and therefore of pain. When you fall in love, you feel a lot. Love weakens you and empowers you, it forces you to feel, and feeling is extremely dangerous. Night is the place of alcohol and stimulants that take you to states of consciousness you never thought you had.

Talk about masculine beauty.

I have a sentimental side that comes from Manuel Puig or Jorge Amado, who in turn was from Stendhal before. The point of view had to be bisexual to be truly valuable. Tolstoy’s men are very beautiful, he is an author who can tell you about the conversation of two fifteen-year-olds and get into Napoleon’s head. Toni Morrison gets inside the head of a rapist and many women and knows how to see the beauty on both sides. If you’re not bisexual, it’s like playing football with one leg. In the imagination you must have this periscopic vision.

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There is unwanted pregnancy and controversy about the possibility of abortion.

The novel shows a range of possibilities in favor of the solution. People don’t want an abortion, but rather any woman can decide, and the options are as many as there are women: to do it, not to do it, or not know what to do. This is a very real problem because nights have consequences. In Kerouac, you don’t see the next day, you don’t see if the Mexican he slept with got pregnant. I think it’s up to men to be attentive to that other side, the feminine, and build these themes together with the storytellers. There are four guys looking for a relationship and this is it. The novel poses the question of rootedness, and birth means establishing the place where this happens, it is clinging to a space. I wrote the book when abortion was free in the US, women from Lima went to Miami to have an abortion because in Peru it is punishable, there is a brutal level of backwardness. Literature must attend to what does not count.

Tonight is like a dream, isn’t it?

This is the first evening he gives himself to the world, he has come to study in a non-place, he lives as a refugee in books in a Borgean way to avoid the real things, but they invite him to an evening in the dark and there he blows up everything he carries on his back without realizing it. Teju Cole or Alexander Hemon are two migrant writers, new Americans, who tell us that you can escape your country, but never its shadow.

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